When Michael Martinez was studying Youth Ministry at Azusa Pacific University with plans to be a pastor, he had no idea he would eventually become the composting evangelist of Los Angeles County.
But as the founder and Executive Director of L.A. Compost, a composting collective, that is precisely what he is today, spreading the word on how decaying food scraps are essential to healthy soil
An Eastsider—his parents met in El Sereno, he grew up in West Covina and lives with his wife in Mount Washington — his path to founding L.A. Compost actually began in Miami, where he moved after graduating from college in 2010 to teach 5th grade as part of Teach for America.
“One day I was giving a lesson about seeds and trees and one of my students was eating Flaming Hot Cheetos,” said Mr. Martinez. “He asked ‘so, where do these come from?’ That’s basically how this all got started.”
Rather than lecture on fresh versus processed food, Mr. Martinez decided to show his students where real food comes from. With nine of the fifth graders and a few shovels, he formed a gardening club and undeterred by the fact that none of children had any gardening experience, built the school’s first community garden. After a few weeks, the club grew to 40-plus students in addition to people from the neighborhood.
“Everyone really enjoyed being part of something bigger than themselves,” said Mr. Martinez. “They got very protective over their broccoli.”
For Mr. Martinez, the experience cultivated twin passions. One is teaching. When he returned to L.A., he enrolled in graduate school at USC, earning his Master’s degree in Education in 2013.
The other passion is composting. Mr. Martinez saw that food scraps went to waste in landfills and garbage disposals, even as soils everywhere were depleted for lack of nourishment that the food scraps could provide. He wanted to stop the waste, to make composting a daily and widespread practice, to reconnect people to the food cycle that is central to healthy living.
As soon as he graduated from USC, he and his brother, David, launched L.A. Compost as an all-volunteer (read: family and friends) enterprise. Focusing on Covina, West Covina, Whittier and Baldwin Park, the volunteers rode bikes equipped with trailer carts to coffee shops, collecting scraps, turning them into compost in their backyards and then giving the compost away at local farmers markets.
The effort was – and remains — deeply meaningful to Mr. Martinez. “What we preach when we talk about the compost is how all of the scraps and ingredients in the pile are a reflection of the community,” he said. “What compost does is it takes something that is imperfect and incomplete, just as all of us are, and all the scraps come together to make something that is whole. Wholeness is only achieved when we work together toward a common goal. A common good. That’s really what this is all about.”
The message has resonated with supporters, allowing L.A. Compost to grow. In late 2013, shortly after L.A. Compost completed the process to become a non-profit organization, it received its first grant — $10,000 from Fellowship Monrovia Church. It used the money to develop its first community compost hub at Monrovia High School, where residents could drop off their food waste for composting in professional-grade bins; the compost was then used to enrich the soil in 10 raised garden beds that were built at the school and tended by students.
Other grants have followed, most notably $15,000 from Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, and another $15,000 from the L.A. Department of Public Works. Today, L.A. Compost has 30 composting hubs throughout L.A., two full-time employees — Mr. Martinez and Julia Mande, the Director of Development — and eight part-time employees. In addition to running the hubs, L.A. Compost offers workshops on sustainability and still mans the farmer’s market at Atwater Village every Sunday, providing a location where shoppers can drop off compostable scraps, sign up for workshops and learn the latest on sustainability efforts in L.A.
L.A. Compost’s next challenge, said Mr. Martinez, is to compost even more food waste by establishing stronger ties to city government, including the Department of Sanitation, a potential source for literally tons of food scraps.
“Success is figuring out how different departments in the city and different community groups can work together to provide more sustainable solutions for Angelenos,” he said. “Our goal is to keep building that human network.”